Nov. 16, 2004

An Introduction to Some Poems

by William Stafford

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Poem: Poem: "An Introduction To Some Poems" by William Stafford, from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems © Graywolf Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission.

An Introduction to Some Poems

Look: no one ever promised for sure
that we would sing. We have decided
to moan. In a strange dance that
we don't understand till we do it, we
have to carry on.

Just as in sleep you have to dream
the exact dream to round out your life,
so we have to live that dream into stories
and hold them close at you, close at the
edge we share, to be right.

We find it an awful thing to meet people,
serious or not, who have turned into vacant
effective people, so far lost that they
won't believe their own feelings
enough to follow them out.

The authentic is a line from one thing
along to the next; it interests us.
strangely, it relates to what works,
but is not quite the same. It never
swerves for revenge,

Or profit, or fame: it holds
together something more than the world,
this line. And we are your wavery
efforts at following it. Are you coming?
Good: now it is time.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Andrea Barrett, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1954). She is known for writing about botanists, oceanographers and geologists in novels such as The Forms of Water (1993) and The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998).

She grew up on Cape Cod, and spent most of her time near the ocean, fascinated by sea life. She decided to study biology in college and went on to study zoology in graduate school.

At some point, she decided she was more interested in history than biology, and started studying medieval religion. It was while she was writing papers about the Spanish Inquisition that she realized she should be a writer. She said, "I'd go to the library and pull out everything, fill my room and become obsessed with the shape and the texture of the paper, and the way the words look, trying to make it all dramatic. At some point I realized: 'Hey, this isn't history, and I'm not a scholar.'"

She worked as a secretary in medical labs, trying to write. After years of struggling to finish her first novel, she showed it to a writer at the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, and he told her to throw it away. She was so upset that she cried for a day, but then she took his advice and wrote her novel Lucid Stars which was published in 1988. Her collection of short stories Ship Fever (1996) became a best-seller after winning the National Book Award.

Because so many of Barrett's books deal with scientists, she constantly has to do research before she writes. She said, "I love research...I describe a [sailor] character who has to go belowdecks, and I think, 'So what is belowdecks?...Then I have to get books about ship building, ship history, immigration history, so I can write a little more...I love learning that way—lurching from subject area to subject area. When you're lit by your own purposes, it's astonishing how easily you can leap into a new field and get to that center of passion."

In order to finish her book The Voyage of the Narwhal, about a group of British scientists exploring the Arctic, Barrett traveled to Antarctica herself.

Her most recent book is Servants of the Map (2002).

Andrea Barrett said, "I think science and writing are utterly the same thing. They are completely rooted in passion and desire, if they're any good at all. You can fall in love with the natural world in the same way you fall in love with a person. There's that same sense of helplessness, of lacking control over how much of your life you want to devote to it."

She also said, "It's hard to explain how much one can love writing. If people knew how happy it can make you, we would all be writing all the time. It's the greatest secret of the world."

It's the birthday of the novelist Chinua Achebe, born in Ogidi, Nigeria (1930). His great uncle was the man who first received European missionaries into his village. His father became one of the village's early converts to Christianity. Achebe was baptized as a Christian and spent his childhood reading the Bible every day, going to church every Sunday. But he was drawn to the customs of the non-Christians in his community, their traditional festivals and the elaborate masks they wore during religious ceremonies.

He went to a school run by Europeans and read Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, and Joseph Conrad. While reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness, about the colonization of Africa, Achebe found himself identifying with the white colonizers against the African savages. He said, "Eventually I realized...I was not on Marlowe's boat steaming up the Congo...I was one of those strange beings jumping up and down on the river bank, making horrid faces." He decided to become a writer to give voice to those strange beings in Conrad's novel.

The result was his novel Things Fall Apart (1958), one of the first novels ever written about European colonization from the point of view of the colonized native people. It became an international best-seller, and sparked a worldwide interest in African literature. His success helped inspire a whole generation of Africans to believe that they could be writers. He has been called the forefather of African literature in English.

His most recent novel is Home and Exile (2000).

It's the birthday of the novelist Jose Saramago, born in the small village northeast of Lisbon, Portugal (1922). The child of peasants, he grew up on his family's pig farm. In the winter, he often slept with the piglets to keep warm. While working on the daily chores, his grandfather told him endless stories about local legends, ghosts, fights and deaths. Saramago said, "Maybe [my grandfather] repeated the stories for himself, so as not to forget them, or else to enrich them with new detail...Needless to say, I imagined he was master of all the knowledge in the world."

His family moved to Lisbon when he was a teenager, and since his parents couldn't afford an academic school, he went to a technical school and became an auto mechanic. The technical school did offer one literature course, though, and Saramago fell in love with books. Every night after work at the repair shop, he would go to the local public library and read.

He published his first novel Land of Sin (1947) when he was twenty-four, but after writing two more novels which he considered failures, he stopped writing fiction for the next thirty years. He said, "That was maybe one of the wisest decisions of my life...I had nothing worthwhile to say." He supported himself as a metal worker, and slowly began to write book reviews and articles for local newspapers. When Portugal came under the rule of an oppressive dictator, he jointed the revolutionary movement to overthrow the government. He became the editor of an opposition newspaper, but the government shut the paper down and he lost his job.

Saramago was in his mid-fifties, unemployed, and blacklisted by the government. He decided he had no choice but to go back to writing fiction. He later said, "Until the age of fifty we have to learn, and after fifty we have to work until the end occurs."

He went to live in one of the poorest villages in his country and wrote a novel Raised from the Ground (1980) about three generations of a peasant family. He tried to write the novel the way a group of people would tell a story, so he didn't capitalize any letters, didn't indent any paragraphs, and he used no punctuation other than commas. When friends told him the book was almost impossible to read, he told them to read it aloud, and they suddenly found it easy to follow.

He went on writing political and fantastic novels through the eighties and nineties. His real international success came when he published Blindness (1997), a novel about a mysterious disease that causes everyone in a city to lose their sight. A year later, in 1998, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

His most recent book is The Double, which came out last month.

Jose Saramago said, "If you don't write your books, nobody else will do it for you. No one else has lived your life."

It's the birthday of the essayist Phillip Lopate, born in New York City (1943). He's the author of novels, poetry and several collections of essays, including Bachelorhood: Tales of the Metropolis (1981) and Against Joie de Vivre (1989), in which he wrote, "The prospect of a long day at the beach makes me panic. There is no harder work I can think of than taking myself off to somewhere pleasant, where I am forced to stay for hours and 'have fun.'"

His most recent book is Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan (2004).

It's the birthday of the playwright Paula Vogel, born in Washington, D.C. (1951). She's the author of many plays, including The Baltimore Waltz (1992) and How I Learned to Drive (1997), which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Her play The Oldest Profession (1981) was revived in New York City this year.

It's the birthday of the playwright George Kaufman, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1889). He was a humorist and a collaborator on many satirical plays, including Animal Crackers (1928), Strike Up the Band (1930) and You Can't Take It With You (1938).

He was also known as one of the fiercest drama critics of his day. Once, while viewing a play he didn't like, he poked the woman sitting in front of him and said, "Madam, would you mind putting on your hat?" He was once asked by a press agent how to get a new actress coverage by the major newspapers, and he responded, "Shoot her."

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